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In Kashmir, inshallah, there will be football

A new documentary on Kashmir offers the opposite of "Invictus."

Kashmiri boys
Young Kashmiri boys sit with soccer balls during a training camp in Srinagar May 11, 2007. (Fayaz Kabli/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — When Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar traveled to Kashmir for the
first time, in 2009, to research a possible feature film, he discovered a true story that was more inspiring than fiction. He dropped everything and settled in to make a documentary.

Next month, the resulting film, "Inshallah, Football" will premiere at the prestigious Pusan International Film Festival in Korea. The documentary tells the story of a young Argentinean coach who founds a soccer academy in Srinagar to bring so-called "stone pelters" off the killing streets and onto the soccer field. He places many of his players with local professional leagues.

But when he manages to get the team captain an opportunity to train with a professional club in Spain, Kashmir's troubled history emerges to block his efforts, as the government of India denies the boy a passport because two decades earlier his father had joined a militant separatist struggle for an independent Kashmir. At the eleventh hour, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah intervenes on the boy's behalf.

"It's the story of three remarkable men — one is his father who fought for his beliefs, another about the football coach who's come all the way from Argentina to start this football academy, and this young man who is struggling to play football," said Kumar.

That was a summer of hope. When I spoke with coach Juan Marcos Troia (aka "Marco") shortly after Kumar finished filming in 2009, Marco told me happily that his International Sports Academy Trust had trained about 1,000 young men from all over Kashmir — taking at least 50 from the armies of stone-throwing street protesters that plague local police.

He'd stuck it out even after he'd been beaten up by soldiers on the street just five minutes away from the soccer field, after they stopped him for questioning and suspected that he was only pretending to be a foreigner. He'd brought his wife and two daughters with him to Kashmir. The two girls attended school in Srinagar, despite soldiers and curfews, like ordinary Kashmiris. And Marco believed he was making a difference.

"I have seen how it [soccer] is helping to change the mentality of some of the officials in the government and how it's changing the mentality of the people," Troia said at the time. "It's very interesting to see in only two-and-a-half years, how much our program has helped not only football, but also the development of the society."

This summer, as Kumar readies his film, "Inshallah, Football" for Pusan, that hope has been crushed. Spiraling out of control since June, Kashmir seems locked into an escalating pattern of violence, as local residents take to the streets to protest the deaths of innocent civilians, only to see more of their number gunned down by the security forces. Over the past two months, more than 60 civilians have been killed, most of them teenagers. Sport is the last thing on anybody's mind, as local journalists bitterly describe decades-long careers as nothing more than "obituary writing."